Chargers can see their endgame in battle for a playoff spot
Their late-game success this season — relative to their history — has suggested that the Chargers are undergoing a cultural change.
Then they played at Denver on Sunday and turned the ball over twice in the fourth quarter, falling behind by three touchdowns in the final minutes in their latest biggest game.
The Chargers lost to the Broncos 28-13 on an afternoon that had been a closely contested, sometimes flustering, often confounding affair — until they crumbled.
What this team had found frequently under first-year coach Brandon Staley now went missing, a glaring reminder that success in the NFL — especially in 2021 — can be a difficult thing to maintain.
“When you’re in a tight game, can you find your offense late in the game?” Staley said, a reference to how the flailing Chargers still could have won in Denver. Later, he added, “We’ve just got to have our best stuff at the end.”
That sentiment never has been more true than it is today, with December about to arrive and the 6-5 Chargers looking at a remaining six-game stretch that will determine their fortune.
NFL roundtable: The Rams and Chargers have slumped partly because Matthew Stafford has had interception problems for the Rams, and the Chargers offensive line keeps faltering.
They are currently the AFC’s No. 7 seed in a tournament that takes seven seeds per conference. Immediately below are five contenders each facing a deficit that is a fraction of one game.
The teams that eventually move on next month will indeed be the ones that have their best stuff at the end.
“The AFC is still wide open,” safety Derwin James said. “Everybody pretty much in the AFC’s got the same record as us. I mean, it’s still open.”
Four of the six opponents remaining enter Week 13 with winning records, including divisional rivals Denver and Las Vegas, both also 6-5. The Chargers will face a pair of 7-4 teams, Cincinnati and Kansas City.
They also have the 4-7 New York Giants and the 2-9 Houston Texans coming up. L.A. plays three more times at home and three more times on the road.
All totaled, those opponents are 32-34, giving the Chargers a remaining strength of schedule that is tied for 15th league-wide.
In other words, during a season in which so much around the NFL has leaned toward the middle of the road, the Chargers’ postseason chances can be characterized as middle of the road, as well, somewhere close to 50/50.
Staley said that he first discussed the standings with his players two weeks ago, just after the midway point of the season. As a progressive coach in a sport famous for its narrow focus, he wasn’t shy about addressing a bigger picture.
“I think that it’s always good to be mindful of that,” Staley said, “so that you can have the type of preparation and performance that we expect and not get caught up in things that aren’t important.
“We have a lot in front of us, and when I say a lot in front of us, we have Cincinnati in front of us. And it’s a big game because they’re ahead of us in the AFC.”
The Chargers’ defense could not get off the field on third down, and the off-kilter offense could not recover from a two-touchdown deficit.
The Bengals are a game up on the Chargers, and they’re surging. They beat Pittsburgh on Sunday, 41-10, a week after going to Las Vegas and pummeling the Raiders, 32-13.
This game matches 2020 first-round quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert but really isn’t about that pairing at all. Instead, it’s about winning and losing and the scant wiggle room the NFL affords on either side.
The New York Times has an interactive playoff predictor that has the Chargers’ real-time chances of making the playoffs at 54%. With a win at Cincinnati, that number climbs to 70%. A loss drops it to 40%.
“When you lose a tough one, like [Sunday], you’re going to leave the stadium and you’re going to get on the plane and it’s gonna eat at you,” Staley said. “It’s going to crush you in a way.
“But that’s why competition is great. And then, as a competitor, you have to be able to separate that feeling from the reality of today, which is we’ve got to move on and we’ve got to move on together.”
The Rams and Chargers are both suffering through slumps, although in different ways with the Rams unable to run and the Chargers unable to stop the run.
The Chargers have to find a way to better protect Herbert, who was pressured a season-high 19 times by the Broncos. They have to be more consistent running the ball. They have to stop dropping passes.
A victory over the Bengals, who opened as 2½-point favorites, would certainly boost the perception of the Chargers, along with restoring their confidence. Against teams that right now would be in the playoffs, they are 2-3.
“Hopefully, we’re building this thing to be our best at the end,” Staley said. “That’s our plan. I feel like so much of that is your mindset and that trust and that belief in one another.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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